In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Biogeochemistry

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals and Meetings for Biogeochemists
  • Global Biogeochemistry
  • The Carbon Cycle
  • The Nitrogen Cycle
  • The Origin of Oxygen in Earth’s Atmosphere
  • Sediments and Sedimentary Diagenesis
  • The Paleorecord
  • Controls
  • Stoichiometry
  • Coupled Biogeochemical Cycles
  • Models and Validations
  • Origins of Life
  • Extremophiles and Extraterrestrial Life

Ecology Biogeochemistry
William H. Schlesinger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0111


Biogeochemistry is an integrative science that seeks to understand how the planet Earth functions as a closed chemical system that has supported life for at least 3.5 billion years. This science is highly interdisciplinary—for example, it is pursued by physicists who want to understand what determines Earth’s climate, by molecular biologists who want to understand what controls the gene expression for certain biochemical pathways, and by geologists who want to understand what controls the breakdown of rocks and the composition of the oceans through geologic time. Biogeochemistry is often described as the chemistry of the surface of the Earth, where the imprint of life is pervasive. Biogeochemistry is at the heart of global-change biology—trying to predict the human impact on the surface chemistry of the planet.

General Overviews

Biogeochemistry is a relatively young science. The term is credited to Vladimir Vernadsky, whose classic work was translated into English in Vernadsky 1998, but the word was in sporadic use nearly a century earlier (Gorham 1991). Early biogeochemists were often geologists, who found that many rock-forming minerals are microbial byproducts, such as pyrite. As reviewed by Ehrlich 1999, they coined the term geomicrobiology to encompass their studies in this subdiscipline. Early agriculturalists were also biogeochemists without realizing it, as when J. Liebig described how the soil nutrient in the shortest supply would determine crop yield (see Liebig 1840). Hans Jenny was among the first to study biogeochemistry in natural ecosystems, describing the formation of soils in the context of geology, topography, climate, vegetation, and time (Jenny 1980). Unknowingly, ecology embraced biogeochemistry with the landmark studies Lindeman 1942, which traced the flow of energy through aquatic ecosystems, and Bormann and Likens 1967, which studied the input and loss of elements of biochemical interest from small forested watersheds in New England (see also Likens and Bormann 1995). Studies of the internal cycle of elements in forests and of the losses of chemical elements to stream water were widespread in the 1960s and 1970s. In recent years, biogeochemical studies have examined the impacts of acid rain, nitrogen deposition, and forest harvest. More recent studies examine element flow in agricultural ecosystems and cities.

  • Bormann, F. H., and G. E. Likens. 1967. Nutrient cycling. Science 155.3761: 424–429.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.155.3761.424

    First presentation of the watershed concept for studies of the element budgets in forest ecosystems.

  • Ehrlich, H. L. 1999. Microbes as geologic agents: Their role in mineral formation. Geomicrobiology Journal 16.2: 135–153.

    DOI: 10.1080/014904599270659

    A career geomicrobiologist provides a comprehensive review of this field.

  • Gorham, E. 1991. Biogeochemistry: Its origins and development. Biogeochemistry 13.3: 199–239.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF00002942

    This is a thorough and scholarly review of the history of biogeochemistry.

  • Jenny, Hans. 1980. The soil resource: Origin and behavior. New York: Springer-Verlag.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4612-6112-4

    As an update of his original classic, Factors of Soil Formation (1941), Jenny’s book puts the ecosystem concept to use, showing that one can understand the development of soils only in the context of their position in climate, topography, vegetation, and time.

  • Liebig, J. 1840. Die organische Chemie in threr Ahwendung auf Agricultur und Physiologie. Braunschweig, Germany: Vieweg.

    Presentation and development of the law of the minimum, showing how nutrient supply determines the growth of crop plants.

  • Likens, G. E., and F. H. Bormann. 1995. Biogeochemistry of a forested ecosystem. New York: Springer-Verlag.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4612-4232-1

    Synthesizing the first thirty years of their work at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, Likens and Bormann show how vegetation controls the losses of chemical elements in stream water and the impacts on forest harvest on these losses.

  • Lindeman, R. L. 1942. The trophic-dynamic aspect of ecology. Ecology 23.4: 399–418.

    DOI: 10.2307/1930126

    Written as a graduate student and published shortly after his death, this paper was among the first to outline the flow of energy (organic carbon) in an ecosystem.

  • Vernadsky, V. I. 1998. The biosphere. Translated by D. B. Langmuir. New York: Copernicus and Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4612-1750-3

    This is a recent, readable translation of Vernadsky’s original presentation of the concept of the biosphere and its activities on Earth.

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